These ‘Cops’ hug first, ask questions later

COPS: Ernie Stevens, left, and Joe Smarro. Courtesy of HBO/Tribune News Service

Your typical buddy cop movie often relies on the tension between mismatched partners (who initially loathe each other) to navigate certain action-comedy requirements and dispatch bad guys with fists flying, guns blazing and wisecracks wielded. Aside from the wisecracks, "Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops" is definitely not that kind of movie.

For one thing, it's a documentary. And if serious issues ever existed between Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, members of the San Antonio Police Department's groundbreaking mental health unit, they've long moved past them to the kind of relationship that would be the envy of many a marriage. These plainclothes Texas lawmen go out of their way to avoid conflict, practicing compassion and courage as they attend to the distressed souls they encounter on this specialized beat.

Director Jennifer McShane offers both a closely observed character study of two regular guys on the job, and a quiet piece of advocacy that uses the powerful negative space of what we don't see - namely violence - to argue for a calmer, gentler approach to how law enforcement and society at large should deal with mentally ill people.

Physically, and emotionally, the two officers could be brothers, yet they carry very different back stories. Joe is a Marine Corps vet in his 30s with PTSD and five kids from three different women. A decade older, Ernie is a family man who unwinds by helping his daughter with her homework, practicing martial arts and reading the Bible.

Following the two men as they manage cases, train other first responders and pull overtime on regular uniformed shifts, McShane deploys a simple verite ride-along approach. When Ernie and Joe respond to a distraught person threatening to jump from a freeway overpass, we observe as they approach with open arms, brandishing kindness and empathy, their firearms safely stowed. It's as if Dr. Phil hijacked the reality series "Cops."

A partnership with local mental health organizations, SAPD's program is a work in progress, and a startling improvement over the countless violent outcomes we see on the news, which "Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops" skillfully illustrates. Moving in its humanity and forceful in its pragmatism, the documentary feels like essential viewing, especially for decision makers with the power to enact similar initiatives.

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